Can You Go After a Corporate Job Without a Degree?

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Can You Go After a Corporate Job Without a Degree?

About 60 percent of Americans do not have a college degree. But is this really a deal breaker with potential employers?

Published April 27, 2017

Recently, there has been some debate about the new law granting New York state families free tuition which passed on April 9. Students can now attend any two- and four-year state college without having to pay any tuition based on income standards meant to favor the “middle class.” Met with reproach from both left and right-wing commenters, the landmark state-wide program is still a step in the right direction. Some have criticized the liberal $125,000 salary cap for qualifying families, saying that it increases taxes for those who make less than the qualifying recipients. But in New York City, where rent for a two-bedroom apartment can easily be more than $2,500 a month, that salary is quickly deflated, especially when you add in the cost of raising a child. College tuition has been steadily increasing at a rate that is double inflation since 2008, leaving many students in the position of having to drop out of school or forgo higher education all together. The impact this has on our economy is obvious as the middle class continues to shrink and further alienate the idea that prospering is possible in America no matter your background. Despite findings that show Black women are the most educated group in America, people of color still lag behind in college completion rates by almost 20 percent when compared to our white counterparts. In short, high tuition affects the Black community the hardest.

What we’re left with, essentially, is a large chunk of Black people who are going into the workforce without the benefit of a degree. Entry-level positions (such as labor, retail and city jobs) don’t often require completed college degrees. But these careers don’t typically pay enough to sustain financial growth and stability — especially for families. So what options are left for all of those remaining who don’t hold college degrees but want the opportunity to thrive?

According to recent polls, corporate America hasn’t pulled back much on requiring a degree for entry-level positions. In fact, companies now require a college degree for jobs that once didn’t need a degree at all. In an economy where nearly half of the entire population does not hold a four-year degree, these requirements make it a lot harder on companies looking for qualified talent as well as adults who never completed their degree but still have substantial experience in their chosen field.


Climbing to the Top


Karen, a marketing director in Philadelphia, dropped out of college when she began struggling with depression and had a hard time making it to class, which lead to the loss of her scholarship. Instead of getting kicked out, she left on her own accord and took an entry-level position as a party planner to pay bills. She eventually worked her way up to a management position and opportunities began to open up. “I moved to another much larger company, similar role, and was hyper aggressive in making sure upper management knew me.” Karen’s story is more common than ever. As the cost of college continues to skyrocket, as well as drop-out rates, this trend will grow unless more states adopt the tuition-free model.

As the job market shifts and changes, creative jobs in the media industry are growing. If you are someone with creative skills, a natural voice for leadership, a talent for organization and strategy or a knack for numbers; you may set your eyes on more ambitious career goals. Though having a degree can get you in the door at a higher position and pay level, networking is still a large component of success no matter what accolades you have achieved. This can be problematic for people of color if there is a lack of diversity in management. So, having a degree will definitely put you at an advantage, but in no way is it necessarily a deal breaker.

Takeaways for Non-Degree Holders


Carolyn Sweeney is a recruiter with Robert Half International and reiterated that non-degree resumes came across her desk regularly. She said she always encourages these otherwise qualified applicants to go for positions they know they can do well. “Be upfront about it and say what you bring to the table,” she says about how to handle feeling less competitive. “Be confident and know what you offer.”

What’s most important to focus on, if you don’t hold a degree, is your skills. Skill building is not always something you have to do at a two- or four-year institution. There are multiple online platforms that provide workshops, seminars and short-term courses to build on things like marketing, project management, brand strategy and learning how to use design software.

It’s also vital to leverage your resume with longer stints at each company you work for. Short of abuse or discrimination, when the going gets tough at work, stick it out for the sake of longevity. Put in your hours, your years and build real relationships with your colleagues. When or if you leave and have to look for something else, potential employers will appreciate your staying power.

Sweeney explains the most common reason given by employers who require degrees for positions that may not actually need that level of education. “When I ask hiring managers what a candidate with a degree brings to the table that a non-degree holder does not, the answer is often the same. They feel those who finish a college degree have proven that they can finish something and see it through.” The problematic thing about this notion, of course, is that holding a degree is not a fair indicator of someone’s ability to finish what they start. Most people who drop out of college did so for financial reasons, not because they got bored.


Interviewing Without a Degree


Despite having a competitive resume and feeling good about your odds, the battleground tends to be the actual interview. Going into the interview and negotiating process feeling as though you are lacking can be a hindrance much greater than not having a completed degree. “Everybody goes into an interview with insecurities in their pocket,” says Carolyn Sweeney, who advises those interviewing for positions with degree requirements to stay confident and remember that most hiring managers are just looking for the right fit. It costs the average company about 10 percent of the position’s salary to replace an employee, not to mention the resources and time that go into recruitment. At the end of the day, it’s always possible to hire someone with an attractive resume and end up losing money to compensate for what they are lacking in experience.

But what about negotiating salary and being informed of what the job has to offer? Plenty of us were told things like “just be glad you have a job,” as if starting from the bottom is required. While obtaining entry-level jobs and working your way to the top is great advice for those at the beginning of their careers, this advice can ring in the ears of applicants who are mid-career and harbor insecurities about asking for what they want.

While it's better to have a job to fulfill your immediate financial needs, the long term should also be a priority. Best practice? Don't lag on inquiring about compensation. Confirming salary, benefits and schedule before or even during your first interview sends the message that you are looking to stick around for a while and that lifestyle and financial comfort are important elements of where you end up. If a job is taken off the table because you have asked life-sustaining questions, that probably isn't the best fit for you.

Most importantly, remember your worth and take the time to take inventory of the things you bring to the table — even the things that aren’t represented by a two-page resume or a LinkedIn profile. You are more than your accomplishments and worthy of being invested in.


Written by Ashley Simpo

(Photo: Getty Images)


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